Ryan Simonetti is the co-founder and CEO of Convene. Founded in 2009, Convene aims to transform the way people meet and work together—by partnering with landlords to design, build, and operate a premium network of meeting and event facilities, flexible workspaces, and hospitality amenities. The company’s unique collaboration model is powered by a proprietary mobile technology platform that provides tenants with intuitive building experiences while giving landlords sophisticated insights into property use. Convene is currently available in select locations in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago, with more cities coming soon.
EDWIN WARFIELD: You were at Lehman Brothers before you launched Convene. Where did you get your start in business, and what inspired to you to strike out as an entrepreneur?
RYAN SIMONETTI: It was at Villanova, where I got a chance to meet my now business partner Chris Kelly, actually as part of pledging a fraternity at Villanova—SigEp, which our boy Neil over here was a part of as well. Villanova, for me, was just an amazing life experience. I grew up in a blue collar, middle class town. Nobody in my family ever went to college. I think if there is one thing I got out of Villanova experience was my eyes being opened to a world that existed outside of the one that I grew up in—one that was socio-economically diverse, one that was global. I hadn’t been on an airplane until I was 17 years old, and then having a chance to go to Villanova and then study abroad, you find out that the world is a lot bigger than Hillsboro, New Jersey.
Chris and my relationship—we were probably the two kids at Villanova who didn’t have our parents credit cards, and so we formed a natural bond around that, and we both were really interested in business. We had a bunch of little startup companies in Villanova, hustling used textbooks, selling spring break trips, running some really great bus ticket parties into Philadelphia. I’d say our entrepreneurial roots probably started long before them, but we really created a relationship around entrepreneurship, and we always made a promise that if either one of us came up with a great idea at some point, it would be great to do something together after we graduated.
When I graduated, as you mentioned, I went to Lehman Brothers, in their global real estate group. I worked within their structure of products business—so, things like CMBIS and those nasty CBO things—those were all things that we were doing at Lehman. It was an amazing experience, your typical analyst experience work—a lot of hours grinding it out, but I learned a ton and really developed a passion for real estate. I always had a passion for business, but didn’t really have a passion for real estate until my time at Lehman, and I really fell in love with the asset class and I fell in love with the industry while I was there.
After about 12 months, I got promoted and then took a job at Gramercy Capital, which at the time was still a private company backed by SL Green, the large office landlord. The business model was really to be a debt an equity investor capital structure agnostic and asset class agnostic. The one thing was we typically either lent or invested into a story. I spent from 2006 through 2009 there, and had a great run. I think when I started I was the sixth or seventh employee there. We went from I think a $300 million asset business to I think almost $8 billion when it was all said and done. It was amazing to be in that type of high growth environment, at the industry at that peak, and then also seeing the correction.
I went from running an investments team to helping start our special situation and workout business, our special servicing group. That’s where I really got a doctorate in business, and also human behavior. Seeing how people behave in desperate times tells you a lot about people and motivations. That’s something that I have carried with me throughout my career, and I took some of those lessons into the founding of Convene. It just so happened while I was at Gramercy I spent a lot of time investing in office buildings and hotels. And this is when I came up with the idea for Convene, which said, “What if you ran an office building more like a hotel—a space from a design, from a human experience perspective? What if you thought about what technology would mean in that environment?”
I came up with the idea in 2008, and launched the business in 2009. And it was during 2009, as I was going through finishing the fundraising and about to launch the business, that I called Chris and said, “Hey, I got a great idea.” It just so happened that he was going to be in New York for a couple of weeks with his now wife. They had a business they had started that allowed them to work from anywhere, and he was going to be there for few weeks, and he said, “yeah sure, I’ll help you out for a couple of weeks I’m in town,” and he never left. We launched in 2009, and I like to say we’re a 9-year-old startup still, but it’s been a pretty amazing run.
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